Three systems we can redesign to end food poverty

To unlock children and families from poverty, we must redesign our housing and labour markets and our social security system, says Helen Barnard.

This year we are deciding the future direction of our country. I believe that future generations will judge us not only on how well we redefine our relationship with our European neighbours and beyond, but by our success in meeting the defining challenge facing us at home: poverty. Two reports published today lay bare the effects of being locked in poverty on children and families. They paint a picture that offends our shared values of compassion and justice and points to our moral duty to act now.

The Government’s most recent poverty figures show that more than 4 million children are growing up in poverty, a rise of 500,000 over five years. The Children’s Future Food Inquiry and the Trussell Trust’s annual food bank report paint a stark picture of what this means for daily life. People on low incomes spend more of their income compared to the average on essentials – food, utilities, rent, bus fares and so on. When they are swept into deeper poverty they have to cut back: the food budget is often one of the few areas of spending that gives that option.

Today’s reports concentrate on food poverty – one of the most shocking symptoms of poverty. Many of these families also go without many other essentials and are excluded from opportunities to learn, to enjoy life and to improve their prospects. To release children and families from this situation, we need to redesign the systems that trap them there; our housing and labour markets and social security system. We have seen successful steps to begin this process, giving us a strong basis to build on.

A labour market that works for families

More than 7 in 10 children in poverty now have a parent in work: high employment has been an economic success story for the UK, but the way our labour market is designed is holding families back from a decent standard of living.

  • Change is coming: the National Living Wage improved pay at the bottom; some employers are taking action to enable their lowest paid workers to train and progress to better paid work; cities such as Leeds, Glasgow and Belfast are committed to delivering inclusive growth, redesigning their local economies to improve living standards for the worst-off.
  • But low pay is still widespread, most low paid workers remain stuck, and parents working part-time find it especially hard to earn a decent wage.
  • We must keep redesigning our labour market so that it delivers for families. The government can push this forward by using the forthcoming Shared Prosperity Fund to invest in weaker local economies, focusing the cash on driving up employment and earnings.

More genuinely affordable homes

High housing costs are a major factor pulling families into poverty. More and more low-income families have been trapped in the private rented sector, where rents are high and standards can be low. Almost all low-income private renters face a gap between their income from Housing Benefit and their rent, so they have to use other income to cover it (on average a third of their other income). That often means cutting back in other areas.

  • The Government has announced an end to ‘no-fault evictions’, so landlords can’t evict tenants without a reason. This is a big step towards freeing families to have a secure and stable home.
  • Next, we need more genuinely affordable housing, so that families aren’t locked in homes which are too expensive, which can pull them to the brink of homelessness.

A stronger social security system

Finally, our social security system must be strengthened to provide a strong anchor for families buffeted by the tides of low pay, high housing costs, ill health and caring responsibilities.

  • Last year, the Government listened to widespread calls for it to improve Universal Credit, putting £1.7 billion back into the system so that working parents can keep more of what they earn.
  • We must build on this. Universal Credit should be a lifeline for families on low incomes, but flaws in its design and delivery can push people further under instead.
  • The Government must end the five-week wait for the first payment, ensure debt repayments do not push people into destitution and continue to invest so that it frees families to provide the good start in life which we all want for our children.

As public concern about poverty reaches record levels, now is the time for us to make solving it a top political priority. Only by acting on the concerns of low-income families can we unlock opportunities for all of us to achieve a brighter future for ourselves and our families.